Spring stirs still waters with the stick of life and out come the birds of summer: the Martins, Swallows and Swifts. Gilbert White, the famous 18th century naturalist-vicar of Selbourne, believed these birds spent the winter hibernating under water. Later stories about them flying from the southern tip of Africa here every year just seem, well, far-fetched.
On a sunny day last week, with a breeze glittering the water of Venus Pool here in Shropshire, a group of Sand Martins were twisting through tangents in the air, snatching midges. A lone Swallow was embedded with them. Perhaps it was the long beak of the Snipe that stirred the mud and put the Martins to flight but there they were, flicking through their dark geometry, raising spirits.
Sand Martins are traditionally the first of the Swallow tribes to appear. A few House Martins have turned up early too. The first Swallow was seen in East Lothian in early February and by March, a lone Swift appeared on the Isle of Wight. Hundreds are on their way but they’re in trouble.
Even though the gate to the south is open, the weather is punishingly northern and could spell disaster. I worry that birds are arriving but their baggage of spring is lost in some hideous Terminal 5 limbo.
The Sand Martins are dull but diligent, they like the open skies but seek the dark seclusion of their nesting tunnels. House Martins are dapper, two-tone, builders of neat adobes, dancers on the summer breeze. Swallows are elegant, decorously decadent, highly strung, bad-mannered hedonists.
If Sand Martins are geeks, House Martins are mods, Swallows are celebrities - then Swifts are the biker gang from Hell. Later than the rest, Swifts - the devil birds - inspire us with their recklessness, screaming over rooftops and church towers with irreverent joy.
To me, the gathering of Martins, Swallows and Swifts is about the community of summer: it needs numbers, crowds of them to get the party started. Tearing through the flimsy acres of the sky, it’s they who give the air vitality, they set the pace, they make the world spin.